Inquiry Reflection: November 30, 2010
Flint Sparks

“Be a light unto yourself”

This is a very famous quote from the Mahaparinibbana Sutta which chronicles the events and teachings at the very end of the Buddha’s life. He speaks about diligently practicing in order to know what it true for ourselves, not relying solely on the teachings of others, including the Buddha himself. Of course, the image of light is very compelling. It suggests illumination where there is darkness and the restoration of the ability to see where there was once blindness. But, I think the Buddha was saying much more than what is implied by this seemingly “positive” interpretation. He was suggesting that we do the hard work of looking and discovering for ourselves. He had dedicated his life to practice to answer his deepest questions. He was suggesting we become like scientists, using our clear thinking and an experimental attitude, to find out what is most deeply true about our own consciousness — our own heart and mind.

A very wonderful Japanese teacher, Kobun Chino Roshi (1938-2002), would often use “light” as a metaphor for sitting practice and for life energy. He was a delightful teacher and a poet. One of the first quotes given to me by my own teacher (Zenkei Blanche Hartman) was the following from Kobun Chino. She gave it to me before the first seven-day sesshin I was about to enter with her.

"The main subject if this sesshin is how to become a transmitter of actual light, life light. Practice takes place to shape your whole ability to reflect the light coming through you, and to regenerate your system, so the light increases its power. Each precept is a remark about hard climbing. Maybe climbing down (to the very ground of your being). You don't use the precepts for accomplishing your own personality or fulfilling your dream of your highest image. You don't use the precepts in that way. The precepts are the reflective light world of one precept, which is Buddha's mind itself, which is the presence of Buddha. Zazen is the first formulation of the accomplishment of Buddha existing. The more you sense the rareness and value of your own life, the more you realize that how you use it, how you manifest it, is all your responsibility. We face such a big task so, naturally, such a person sits down for a while. It's not an intended action, it's a natural action."

There is an enormous amount of teaching that can flow from this quote. Much more than I will comment on here in this small post. It made a big impact on me the first time I read it and it has stayed with me throughout these many years, continuing to unfold its meaning. I discovered the truth of “climbing down” in practice, just as I had in psychotherapy, but the difference was that in zazen I was climbing toward nothing; no gain: no accomplishing of my own personality or of fulfilling the dream of my highest image. This was naturally something that made me sit down for a while, and I’ve remained on the cushion in one way or another since then.

Here is another reflection on the use of “light” by Kobun Chino Roshi . It is found in A Light in the Mind: Living Your Life Just As It Is, an homage to Kobun Chino’s life and teaching by his long-time student and Zen teacher Carolyn Atkinson. In this segment she is describing a moment later in his teaching life.

“We sit,” Kobun began slowly, “to make life meaningful. The significance of our life is not experienced in striving to create some perfect thing.” He looked down at his hands as he spoke. He was quiet for a long time. Then he continued, “We must simply start with accepting ourselves. Sitting brings us back to actually who and where we are.” Again he waited, as he perhaps reflected upon his own life. “This can be very painful. Self-acceptance is the hardest thing to do.” Once again, he paused, so long at this point that I wondered if perhaps he had finished. But finally he continued, “If we can’t accept ourselves, we are living in ignorance, this darkest night. We may still be awake, but we don’t know where we are. We cannot see. The mind has no light.” He stopped and looked around at us in our small circle. He moved from face to face with his eyes, seeing deeply into each one of us, his long-time, oldest students. Finally, he nodded slightly, and concluded, “Practice is this candle in our very darkest room.”

She captures what I imagine was a poignant moment with her teacher, in stillness and silence. His “life light” touched everyone in the room. And, this illumination was not brought about by his being grand or special, but by being ordinary and wholehearted. His vulnerability opened the way for wisdom. His willingness to face himself and his students opened the way for compassion. This is being a light.

Interestingly, the American poet Mary Oliver has written a poem entitled “The Buddha’s Last Instruction,” speaking to this final teaching about becoming a light. It also underscores the relational quality of that realization and transformation. This is not a solitary practice nor an individual achievement. It is profound meeting.

The Buddha’s Last Instruction
Mary Oliver

“Make of yourself a light “

said the Buddha,
before he died.

I think of this every morning

as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds

of darkness, to send up the first

signal - a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,

even green.

An old man, he lay down

between two sala trees,

and he might have said anything,

knowing it was his final hour.

The light burns upward,

it thickens and settles over the fields.

Around him, the villagers gathered

and stretched forward to listen.

Even before the sun itself

hangs, disattached, in the blue air,

I am touched everywhere

by its ocean of yellow waves.

No doubt he thought of everything

that had happened in his difficult life.

And then I feel the sun itself

as it blazes over the hills,

like a million flowers on fire-

clearly I’m not needed

yet I feel myself turning

into something of inexplicable value.

Slowly, beneath the branches,

he raised his head.

He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.

“Clearly I’m not needed/yet I feel myself turning/into something of inexplicable value.” Relinquishing self and finding True Nature. Kenosis (self-emptying) and realizing God. Mind and body of them selves, dropped away. There are many ways this has been taught. And in the end, “He looked in to the faces of that frightened crowd.” She doesn’t say, “and then everything was OK.” She also does not imply that, “then he gave his final wise teaching.” The suggestion is that the looking into the faces was the teaching. This is the life light — this willingness to look and truly see. This is what en-lightens and frees all beings. This is making ourselves a light.

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Comment by Peg Syverson on December 19, 2010 at 4:00pm

Another interpretation of the Buddha's last words was offered by Mu Soeng, in a workshop a few years ago. He said that it is important first of all to understand the context in which these words were spoken. The dying Buddha was actually responding to his followers, who were anxiously asking, "after you are gone, who should we follow? Should we follow this teacher or that teacher, who should we seek out?" The Buddha's words, according to Mu Soeng, actually should be translated "Be an island unto yourselves. Fare forward with appamada—diligent care." Of course we Americans prefer "be a light unto yourself," a version heavily infused with the Christian beliefs of early translators, and resonant with our individualistic ideals for self-improvement and self-authorization. I like Mu Soeng's version, because it affirms the central importance of sangha, of community, while still maintaining the distinction of the revolutionary and unique teachings of the Buddha, in marked contrast to the other teachers of his time. Be an island unto yourselves: encourage each other, teach each other, support each other, brighten the dark places, take good care of each other and your path together.



Appamada is not just the occasional mindful thought or attentive state of mind, it’s actually a commitment to being attentive. It’s more than just a meditative state of mind, it’s more than just being mindful. It has to do with that primary ethical or moral orientation we have in life, with which we bring into being whatever activity we’re engaged in. Whether in formal meditation, in our interactions with other people, in our social concerns, or in our political choices, it’s the energetic cherishing of what we regard as good.

—Stephen Batchelor


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